Titian (c. 1488/90-1576), Danae, 1544-1545, oil on canvas, Capodimonte Museum, Naples
While walking into the National Gallery of Art to see the Degas and Cassatt exhibit I noticed that they have a brand new Titian on loan from the Capodimonte Museum in Naples. While both exhibits were beautiful in different ways, I really started thinking about the radical changes in artistic style from the Renaissance to the Impressionist periods. But first, a synopsis of two great exhibits from my perspective.
Mary Cassatt, Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, 1878, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon
The Degas and Cassatt exhibit pairs two artists who had tremendous influence upon each other in the same exhibit. We can clearly see this influence when looking at the works side by side and in some instances they even collaborated on the same canvas. One thing that struck me was the number of different mediums both artists used. The etchings were especially beautiful given how difficult that medium is with regard to shading and the sheer number of works was astonishing. If I remember correctly, there were four full galleries of Degas and Cassatt. What interested me most was viewing the paintings completed by each artist working from the same subject. It is also worth noting that Cassatt, one of America’s more prominent impressionist painters, helped introduce Degas’ work to American collectors and was instrumental in spreading appreciation of impressionism in North America.
The Degas/Cassatt exhibit will only be on display until October 5th and is definitely worth a visit.
Titian’s Danaë, which hasn’t been at the NGA since a Titian retrospective in 1990-1991, is phenomenally beautiful. While looking at the painting I observed numerous people stopping, staring and studying the immense detail of the work. And that is where the beauty of Titian’s works lays: detail. Oil paint, because of the ability to layer it and work with glazes (very thin layers of translucent paint), allows for more depth of color and light than any other paint type of the time. From the way Danae’s hair falls, to the crinkles or ripples of the sheets and even the ability to render a multitude of fabrics in paint it is clear that a staggering amount of time and energy was expended by Titian to create this intricately detailed and beautiful painting. I once had a teacher tell me “if you want to really see how hard it is to paint something, try putting your body into the same pose as the subject.” This is completely true of this work. The contrapposto stance of the cherub and the way Danaë’s body is positioned were incredibly difficult to capture. Titian truly embodies the Renaissance style in his emphasis on humanism and drawing upon classical influences for this work.
Edgar Degas, Scene fomr the Steeplechase: The Fallen Jockey, 1866, reworked 1880-1881 and c. 1897, oil on canvas, National Gallery of Art, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon
While I pondered the differences between the Renaissance and Impressionist styles, I just kept coming back to depth: both depth as in the overall scope of the work and depth as in the creation of 3D figures in a 2D plane. Degas and Cassatt focused so much on their human subjects that their detail was similar to that of Danaë. However, they did not paint using the kind of detailed brushwork nor use the layers of glazing in their painting as Titian did. This is the fundamental difference between the two eras. The impressionists focused on capturing a moment in time whether it be a specific lighting condition or an event the emphasis was on conveying and impression of a scene regarding both subject and background, allowing us to form our own opinions about what is happening. On the other hand, the Renaissance artist needed to explore the entire canvas and create layers of depth because they were tasked with telling a story down to the last detail and making sure each minuscule aspect was captured to enhance the overall narrative including heavy use of symbolism. The opportunity to take in both these exhibits is not to be missed.
The Titian piece will only be on loan to the NGA until November 2nd.